There’s something about the unpredictability of a storm that arouses excitement and chaos in a reader, writer, or just your average passerby on an open road. We can look towards none other than Shakespeare for attributing such emphasis on the storm as a device crucial to narrative and character development in both theatre and literature.
Globe Education has recently announced Gwilym Jones as the winner of the 2016 Shakespeare’s Globe Book Award for Shakespeare’s Storms. Jones accepted the honour after giving a talk at The Sam Wanamaker Playhouse on Thursday. 6th October Shakespeare’s Storms is the first study of the use of storms in each of Shakespeare’s plays. The book features chapters on Julius Caesar, King Lear, Macbeth, and The Tempest.
Jones, through his interactive talk which seemed natural for its taking place in a playhouse, shared his insight of Shakespeare and the world that he inhabited. He more specifically placed great emphasis on the boundaries of meteorology and imagination in the early 17th century. Jones helped his listeners to imagine a playhouse at the time, it’s boulders pushed by men to rumble on the playhouse roof to mimic thunder.
After his talk, Jones answered a few extra questions on the literary device that is the storm and the importance of Shakespeare study.
Do you think that storms are used to the same capacity and effect by modern playwrights and writers today?
The special conditions of early modern theatre allow for a particularly rich set of associations and effects to be available to Shakespeare and his contemporaries. Those conditions (the types of special effects; the expectations raised by those effects; the meteorological understanding of the audience) aren’t with us anymore, but writers continue to be drawn to the storm. Its suggestive power is similar, even if everything else has moved on.
Do any contemporary playwrights or writers use storms similarly as a device to further their narratives or as a reflection of character progression?
Storms do occasionally figure as a plot device (in the way that, say, Shakespeare uses them to separate characters), especially in film: think Castaway or The Wizard of Oz! But they’re probably more important as a source of symbolism. Two examples from the recent stage stick out to me. The wind in the Alemeida’s production of the Oresteia was utterly chilling – figuratively as well as literally. And the snow in Robert Lepage’s Lipsynch was jaw-droppingly poignant. Neither of those examples are storms in the Shakespearean sense, but stage effects have moved on a great deal; the idea of weather signifying more than weather remains.
Is the unpredictability of the storm important to literature and theatre?
Good question! I’ve not really thought about it like that before, but I think that it has to be a fine line between predictable and unpredictable, especially when it’s a sea-storm. For ancient myth, the sailors have generally angered the gods if they encounter a storm, so it’s not a surprise in one sense, even if it is a surprise to them. That same tension is there in The Perfect Storm (meteorological prediction and the financial situation of the characters have replaced the gods, but it’s the same dynamic). In every case, however unpredictable the storm has been, people are quick to interpret meaning from it. I think that that’s a basic human response.
Why is it important that we continue in our studies of Shakespeare today?
So that we’ll have something to celebrate in 2116? In all seriousness, Shakespeare gets a distorted amount of attention in comparison to his contemporaries, and I’d love to see more productions of, say, John Marston or Thomas Heywood’s plays. But what we have in the production history of Shakespeare is itself a cultural artifact. We’re not just engaging with 400 years ago, but with performances ever since. And in order to reimagine the plays for today’s stage, we have to seriously consider our contemporary condition. So The Tempest is read as concerned with imperialism and colonisation, for example; Henry V has been both pro- and anti-war depending on current conflicts; and most recently Thomas Moore has become ‘about’ immigration. Shakespeare’s plays aren’t just plays that we read and watch, they’re the plays that we’ve chosen to read and watch ourselves over time. That introspection is a huge part of what literature is for.
By Victoria Lancaster
Shakespeare’s Storms by Gwilym Jones
Manchester University Press, 2016